Brahms set Nänie, Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) meditation on mortality, after the death of his friend, painter Anselm Feuerbach, but he was probably also commemorating a younger colleague, composer Hermann Goetz, who died at the age of 36 in 1876. Goetz had earlier set Schiller's poem, written in the classical Greek meter known as distich, to music. There are some definite resemblances between the two settings, making Brahms's work a possible %u201Cdouble memorial.”
Like the Schicksalslied, the Nänie contains two contrasting tempos, with a brief recall of the first tempo at the end. But while in the earlier work the contrast is between a peaceful slow section and a stormy fast one, in Nänie the first tempo is slow and the second even slower. The interval of the major ninth is prominent throughout the work, unifying the two sections. Nevertheless, the contrast is there, not only in the tonality (D major versus F-sharp major, a distant relationship emphasised by a quite audible shift at the articulation points), but also in meter (6/4 versus 4/4) and texture (imitative polyphony versus hymn-like homophony).
After a soft introduction with a hauntingly beautiful oboe solo, the chorus starts a brief fugue that is immediately repeated in varied form and then followed by a third section in free imitation. This section of the poem tells of famous mythological stories where beauty and courage were defeated by death.In the second section – after the key change – the poet turns from individual %u201Ccase studies” to the actual lament, with %u201Cgods and goddesses weeping.” It is remarkable that the movement, like the entire Nänie, is in the major mode, and not minor as one might expect in a lament. No doubt this expresses the catharsis inherent in all tragedy: we are elevated, cleansed, and ultimately comforted when we become reconciled to death. Here as in Schicksalslied, Brahms made a change that allowed him to end on a positive note: after the poet's last words, which depict the underworld, he repeated the penultimate line which ends with the word herrlich (%u201Csplendid”).